ISIS women pose growing challenge to Europe

Story highlights

  • Frida Ghitis: Role of women supporting ISIS appears to be evolving
  • The more police focus on those fitting typical terrorist profile, males, the easier it is for women to escape detection, she says

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)The days of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria conquering vast swaths of territory for its "caliphate" seem to have come to an end. But even as it is defeated by multiple armies on the battlefield, the headline-hungry terrorist group is far from finished. The next chapter in the horror-inducing history of ISIS is likely to feature women doing the killing -- and Europe could provide the principal stage.

Of course, this should have been clear for months to anyone watching the philosophy, trajectory, strategy and tactics of the group. But now we have confirmation, with a string of arrests in Paris in recent days.
    Frida Ghitis
    On September 4, French police discovered an abandoned car parked in front of the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral in the always-crowded center of the French capital. Inside, they found an arsenal of everyday explosives: half a dozen cooking gas cylinders and bottles of diesel fuel.
    Forensic experts examining the car discovered the fingerprints of a woman they identified as Ornella G. Within a couple of days they had located and arrested her in southern France. Before long, police arrested three other women. One of them, Inés Madani, stabbed one of the police officers as she tried to escape.
    Paris prosecutor François Molins said police had disrupted an all-female terrorist cell, and authorities believe they were planning a spate of attacks, including suicide bombings. The women were "totally receptive to the deadly" ideology of ISIS, Molins told reporters.
    Such comments should be a reminder both that women are just as susceptible as men to radical ideology, and that ISIS has again demonstrated that it is more welcoming to women than jihadist rival al Qaeda. The caliphate has, for example, worked to draw women to its territories as part of its effort to build a functioning society, to provide wives and homes to the male fighters, and help recruit other women.
    Until recently, women had largely worked in a variety of functions, notably as the implacable enforcers of the social order, patrolling the streets as the morality police, punishing other women who violated rules on clothing and the like. But as ISIS has lost ground on the battlefield, such work has become less of a priority, and the role of women is predictably changing to fit the circumstances.
    The reality is that ISIS is under considerable pressure. Police everywhere, particularly in France, are on high alert. But by using women, ISIS can perform something of a jujitsu move, using the enemy's force against him. The more police focus on those fitting the typical terrorist profile, males, the easier it is for women to escape detection. And if their attacks succeed, the mere fact that women carried them out somehow amplifies the attack's propaganda value.
    Last week's capture of the alleged French cell may have slowed or prevented the first wave of now-activated female networks: One of them was said to be carrying in her purse a letter swearing allegiance to ISIS and declaring, "I am attacking you and your lands in order to terrorize you." Another, identified by police as Sarah H., had reportedly twice been engaged to ISIS killers. Her first fiancé was Larossi Abballah, the man who stabbed to death two French police officials at their home and held their 3-year-old hostage for several hours in the city of Magnanville last June. After Aballah was killed, Sarah H. was reportedly engaged to one of the ISIS operatives who slit the throat of Jacques Hamel, a Catholic priest in Normandy. The gruesome assassination of Hamel was carried out as parishioners watched in horror.
    But these arrests are unlikely to neutralize the threat, and French authorities have been clear there are more attacks being planned. Indeed, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said France has been disrupting terrorist plots and militant networks "every day," noting that police are keeping track of some 15,000 people believed to be in the process of radicalization.
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    With ISIS losing territory in the Middle East, many European nationals who traveled to the caliphate are making their way home. So far, the worst attacks in France have been carried out directly by men. That was the case in the July 14 truck attack on the seaside promenade in Nice, in which one ISIS driver killed more than 80 and injured hundreds more; and on November 13, 2015, when ISIS killed 137 people in Paris.
    But police believe one of the perpetrators of a siege at a Jewish deli 48 hours after the Charlie Hebdo assault last January, Amedy Coulibaly, had assistance in planning the operation from his common-law wife, Hayat Boumeddiene. Boumeddiene is believed to have fled to Syria before the attack and has featured prominently in ISIS propaganda ever since. She remains wanted by police in France.
    Until now, women who have joined ISIS from the West have mostly traveled to the region in a quest, not unlike the men, for a more meaningful life within the context of their extremist religious beliefs. But while ISIS has reportedly started telling people not to come, it is far from dismantling the organization. New radical female recruits, joined by those returning from Iraq and Syria, will now play new roles as ISIS adapts to its new circumstances, and continues to try to spread terror in Europe.